May 30, 2013

Paper chase

The International Maritime Organisation is seeking public input on ways to ease the administrative burden across the industry. IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu calls this ‘wasted paperwork;’ I call it bullcrap in spades. During the next six months, the IMO will seek inputs from all stakeholders- including through their website, after which ‘a steering group established by the IMO Council will analyse the responses to identify those administrative requirements that are perceived as burdens, and will make recommendations to the Council as to how any such burdens should be addressed’, the organisation says.

It is not just Masters and crews that are affected by all this, the IMO is quick to point out, but also owners, governments, administrations, port authorities and a wide spectrum of interested parties.

Apart from snidely wondering how much wasted paperwork the IMO’s exercise to reduce paperwork will generate, I feel that the move, long overdue as it is, is being made by the wrong organisation. The IMO legislates, and, although it can perhaps reduce the nitty-gritty paper requirements of its legislations a fair bit (or do what I would like to see- throw out useless legislation altogether, perhaps starting with the ISPS code), the real problem here lies in shipowners’ and shipmanagers’ offices. It will take more than the IMO to address that.

I am not too concerned with reduction of paperwork in shore offices of any kind; they can and do hire more people and they never suffer the kind of fatigue seamen do at sea as a direct result of paperwork overload. I therefore will only look at shipboard paperwork here.

A driving force in the shipmanagement business is the manager’s need to have his backside covered at all times and preferably in triplicate. To do this successfully, the shipmanager demands from the ship reams of checklists, reports, emails, letters, photographs and declarations that all is hunky dory, or, if it is not, ‘appropriate’ action is being taken. Appropriate implies, here, that the managers do not end up with egg on their faces; solving the problem is secondary. The IMO can do very little unless this mindset changes. Incidentally, Indian managers are amongst the worst offenders here- whoever said that the British invented bureaucracy but the Indians perfected it was spot on.

There needs to be one manager level person- preferably a Superintendent- tasked in all shipowning or shipmanagement companies, whose responsibility it should be to examine management and safety systems and reduce, mercilessly, unnecessary or duplicated paperwork. He or she should, amongst other things:

  •  First of all, realise that the organisation’s love for paper is putting ships at risk because it is the last nail in the coffin for fatigued and overworked crews.
  •  Secondly, realise that the main purpose of the organisation is not its administration.
  •  Dispense with all those monthly, quarterly, half yearly and yearly reports that managers are so fond of- and, as one admitted candidly to me, never actually read.
  •  Payroll should be moved ashore, where it belongs. All that should come from the ship monthly are the deductions to be made to a seaman’s salary- cash taken, bond and communication costs etc. A simple spread sheet once a month. That is all. Stop using Masters as data entry operators; employ a couple of those ashore instead.
  • Planned Maintenance Systems should be streamlined to effectively become the one stop combined source for inventories and requisitions. Many are capable of being just that, but are rarely used as such. An exported file should be all that is required to be emailed to the office. The utilisation of PMS software is a joke aboard most ships (I often joke that PMS is not just restricted to women; sailors know the acronym- and the stress- differently, is all). Realise that office insistence on following older systems in parallel on ships increases workload without advantage.
  •  Simplify ISM manuals. Very few of the crew understand them to begin with, and then manuals are usually unwieldy, often incoherent or incomplete and so unsurprisingly not followed.
  •  Put enough computers aboard. Give other crew – cooks, bosuns, junior engineers et al- the responsibility to keep their equipment and inventories updated. Something is wrong if a Chief Engineer is spending four hours almost every day on the computer updating PMS or other systems, or a Master is spending similar time doing essentially worthless work that is detracting from his main job.
  •  Put aboard an additional ‘administrative officer’ or seaman/clerk. To those already doing so, take a bow.
  • Reduce the number of people in shipmanagement offices authorised to send emails to Masters. (And demanding immediate responses or clarifications to usually useless queries, many of which have already been addressed). Stop demanding repeat information just because your office filing or email systems are disorganised, or because there is incomplete communication between departments ashore, or because you are too lazy to look it up.
  •  Reduce the number of checklists. Curb shore enthusiasm in creating checklists for ships even when not mandated. (If you must create them, then fill them yourselves, please).

I am sure sailing seamen would have an almost endless supply of practical suggestions, and I know many who surface these to managers ashore. The problem in third party managerial offices- especially the big ones- is one of organisational inertia. Change seems impossible, especially when nobody wants to stick their necks out for fear of being beheaded.

The IMO may simplify regulations and compliance associated with them. It may even help with certain kinds of paperwork directly- related to port formalities and such, for example. (I know standard forms exist, but every country seems to want its own format anyway). The IMO can even try to streamline the Port State Control system- the present one is odd, and consists of PSC inspectors having the ability to board a ship at any time and occupy the entire crew for hours on end at a time when urgent operations are happening at multiple locations aboard. In doing so, they compromise safety and add to fatigue.

The IMO- or any one body- cannot change the mindset that prevails in shipping and administrative offices around the world. That mindset uses seamen as cheap labour, dumping increasing administrative workloads on them without thought and without sufficient additional compensation. That mindset dumps paper aboard that belongs ashore, simply because it is expedient to do so.

Ultimately, and besides anything else, that mindset is directly responsible for fatigue and its proven impact on safety. When will all the smart men and women in the industry begin to understand that?


No comments: